Rick Perry is in a good mood, and it’s not just because it’s his 64th birthday. Tuesday is primary day in Texas, and for the first time in what seems like forever, his name’s not on the ballot. The office he’s made his own—with paintings of the Texas landscapes and framed photos of recent war heroes from Texas—for the last 13 years will belong to someone else next January. But Perry doesn’t sound wistful in the twilight of his term.
“Knowing when to leave is a real gift,” he says. First elected lieutenant governor in 1998, Perry became governor on December 21, 2000, after George W. Bush resigned to prepare for his presidential inauguration. He won his first full term in 2002, and won reelection 2006 and 2010, winning by double-digit margins each time. But Perry decided last year not to seek a fourth full term, giving Texas its first open gubernatorial seat in 24 years.
“I’m comfortable that we’re leaving at an appropriate time,” he says. “I still think I’ve got a passion for what I do. I’ve got 11 months left. I’ve got a deal that I’m working on. I got lots of deals that we’re going to be working on.”
Those "deals" Perry refers to are attempts to woo companies to relocate or expand in Texas, a major component of his economic development scheme. As Fred Barnes reported for THE WEEKLY STANDARD last year, Perry’s recovered from his self-admitted “humbling” presidential campaign by running another campaign—this one on selling Texas’s low-taxes, low-regulation, business-friendly regime as a prescription for the nation’s economic ailments. It may also be the basis for a second presidential run in 2016, to which Perry remains open. ("If I decide to be a candidate in the future" is how he discusses it.)
But as governor, his legacy in Texas may be that as a faithful and vigorous steward of the state's economic health during a period of plenty of uncertainty and turmoil. The Lone Star State weathered the recession better than nearly every other state, and it has one of the country’s lowest unemployment rates. It’s not just the state's standby energy industry that’s contributing to Texas’s good fortunes; tech companies like Facebook and Dropbox have recently expanded here, too.
Perry is fiercely competitive, even now, about Texas. While he praises his fellow Republican governors in other states for being pro-business allies, he can't help reveal his jealousy when they beat him at his own game. The Maryland-based American arm of Italian gun manufacturer Beretta, for instance, recently decided to build a new factory in Tennessee. Texas had been vying for Beretta, too. “Damn them,” Perry whispers loudly. He means it.
Perry isn’t usually one for retrospection, but he does remember a lesson he learned in his first months as governor as a way to show how far Texas—and himself—have come in the economic development game.
In the early part of 2001, Boeing was considering moving its corporate headquarters to either Chicago or Ft. Worth. The new governor thought he and his economic development board had made a good enough pitch for Ft. Worth, but were shocked when Boeing went with Chicago.
“We didn’t have a plan,” he says. “We were disjointed.”
He changed that, reforming the board of independent gubernatorial appointees into an agency that reported directly to the governor’s office. He also learned that economic development isn’t just about selling a business-friendly environment. The wives of the Boeing CEOs, for instance, were concerned about a lack of cultural opportunities in Ft. Worth. That stung, and Perry’s never forgotten it. He lists off with ease how the arts have come to Texas since Boeing decided not to. Ft. Worth has a new museum of modern art, a new symphony hall, and an addition to its already existing Kimbell Museum; Dallas has two performing arts centers, a sculpture garden, and is the new home of the American Film Institute; Austin has a new art museum, San Antonio a new performing arts center, and Houston has more theater seats than any city in America after New York.
As Perry rattles off the list, I take note of his appearance. He’s got a black sports coat over a black polo shirt, with dark gray pants. He’s wearing black-framed glasses, too. With all this talk about culture, he’s looking less like the gun-toting, big-talking Texan of the Republican presidential primary, and more like Steve Jobs.
Meanwhile, Perry's would-be successors begin their general election campaigns. For the Republicans, that's Greg Abbott, the conservative attorney general. Abbott sailed through his gubernatorial primary, as did Democratic state senator Wendy Davis. Texas Democrats are hoping Davis's high-profile filibuster last year of a late-term abortion bill will give them a chance, though the GOP has maintained a strong hold on every single statewide elected office for several consecutive cycles.